Reinventing Rochester: Lessons in Retrofitting

I moved to the United States in 2005 to pursue a history PhD at the University of Rochester. Having been both a history and music buff for most of my life, I knew of Rochester as the site of Charles Grandison Finney’s religious revival and the erstwhile residence of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and bluesman Son House, as well as the home of the House of Guitars, whose ads I grew up watching in Canada.

Though my graduate studies at the U of R required that I narrow my academic interests to the confines of my dissertation topic, my curiosity about the history of the city that surrounded me grew. Urban explorations on my bike inspired countless questions: Who had lived in these grand old mansions? What accounted for the differences between the city’s West and East sides? How far did the subway tracks go and why was the system abandoned? Why all the horses?

Working on the Democrat and Chronicle‘s “Retrofitting Rochester” column for the past year and a half has helped me answer some of these questions, while furthering my passion for the Flower City’s history.

As readers’ responses to the weekly column suggest, many Rochesterians are equally passionate about the topic. Retrofitting followers frequently laud the industrial and innovatory achievements of the city’s past and lament the loss of former urban fixtures such as the Loew’s Theatre and the Seneca Hotel.

But focusing on what the city has lost obscures the many ways it has managed to hold on to its history. Perhaps what has struck me the most about Rochester in my time researching the city is, as the following examples attest, its capacity for reinvention.

In the mid-twentieth century, when the personal fortunes of East Avenue denizens no longer matched the architectural riches of the mansions dotting the tree-lined boulevard, many of these elegant edifices were repurposed as various club headquarters or converted into luxury apartment houses, giving current Rochester residents a taste of the opulent living conditions of the city’s turn-of-the-century elite.

Home of Henry Ellsworth, East Ave

The former home of building and railroad contractor, Henry Ellsworth, is now an East Avenue apartment house.

In 1974, a fire engulfed St. Joseph’s Church on Franklin Street, completely destroying the structure’s interior, but an urban park established within its remaining walls six years later, ensured that the soul of the 134 year-old building would live on.

St. Joseph's Church

St. Joseph’s Church, pre- and post-fire.

By 1990, the Main Street Armory proved outdated for the National Guard’s purposes, but thanks to the efforts of local developers, the beautiful Romanesque fortress reopened 16 years later as a multipurpose entertainment venue, catering to amateur sports leagues and professional music acts alike. Even former President Bill Clinton graced the Armory with his presence at a rally two years ago.

Main Street Armory

“The Fortress on Main Street”: The Armory.

Currently, the Pont de Rennes walkway, itself a recreation of the Platt Street bridge, is part of a local greening project that intends to build an arboretum on the span, thereby creating a “garden in the sky.”

Platt Street Bridge, now Pont de Rennes

The Platt Street Bridge and the Pont De Rennes.

Each of these examples demonstrates Rochester’s commitment to maintaining its architectural assets while serving as proof that preserving the city’s past plays a key part in its promising future.

~Emily Morry, Library Assistant

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Published in: on July 30, 2014 at 5:08 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. May I ask what you finally decided on for your dissertation topic?

  2. My dissertation was not Rochester-related. I wrote on the role of places and spaces in African American music.


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